Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Crime-Solving in the Solomon Islands: THE WHITE GHOST (Billy Boyle 10), James R. Benn

The Billy Boyle World War II mysteries span a very particular time period -- but that hasn't stopped author (and former librarian) James R. Benn from fitting in plenty of Billy Boyle's adventures during those years! In fact, this 10th in the series begins with a short note explaining that there's a gap in time between books 3 and 4 ... and THE WHITE GHOST fits into there: a South Pacific interlude for Boyle in 1943 in the Solomon Islands.

Don't go thinking "vacation" for this investigator, though! Usually working quietly for General Eisenhower (an "uncle" by extension to his Boston Irish family), this time the no-longer-green cop from the States is under orders from Ike's boss, General Marshall, Chief of Staff. There's a lot of mystery to the abrupt summons, and Billy's only relief is that his partner in solving so many crimes already, Kaz -- Lieutenant Kazimierz -- is under orders with him. The pair quickly learn who's puling the strings for their assignment: Ambassador Joe Kennedy, whose son Jack (yes, THAT Jack Kennedy) not only is suffering from a sunken PT boat and injured feet, but also stands accused of the death of a "native scout." Kennedy clout and power even then were enormous, and the grand American-Irish family can demand Billy Boyle's services to straighten things out and get Jack out of trouble.

Emphasis on family. It turns out the Kennedys and the Boyles have very bad blood between them, and much of the antipathy is actually between Billy and Jack. There isn't time for Kaz to get the full story before the investigators start their series of flights to the far-away islands (marking the first time this series has gone to the Japanese war theater), but revelations arrive along the way. Bottom line: If Billy can clear Jack Kennedy, everyone will believe it's true because the bad feelings are well known -- and if he fails to clear the Ambassador's son, Jack will still be OK, because then everyone can assume Billy had it in for the man and merely framed him in some way. Talk about a bind! Still, there's not much Billy and Kaz can do, considering their orders, other than buckling down to solve the crime, and any other complications that come along (many of them personal).

Benn's tightly woven plotting shines here, along with his deft characterizations that allow him to show the inevitable disaster between Billy and the young JFK but also make room for gradual changes through the book. He has ample room in the black history of the Kennedy clan from those years, for framing both criminal and immoral circumstances. This is also a great opportunity for Benn to highlight Billy and Kaz as a team isolated from their usual supports, working out the lay of the land (and water) in this military-overrun seascape.

Especially intriguing is the American interplay with the Chinese in the region, and Billy and Kaz enter an uneasy alliance with the very intelligent and secretive Miss Chang, who is soon more than a friend for Kaz ("Please, call me Jai-li, Billy. The baron [Kaz] spoke so much about you, I feel we are already friends.") It's Miss Chang who helps them see more clearly how alien they themselves are as "gwai lo" -- white people -- in the Solomons.
"Billy, to most of the people here, all gwai lo look alike."

"White ghost," I said. "Or is is white devil?" I'd heard the term plenty back in Boston's Chinatown, never uttered in a kindly tone.

... "And all three are dead, with no trace of the killer," Jai-li said. "It is indeed a white ghost you are seeking."
Benn's writing keeps Billy Boyle and his investigation in the heart of traditional crime-solving terrain, with both history and military machinations (like radio networks) smoothly woven into the page-turning action. And as is the case for every really good mystery, it's Billy's choices of how to honor his own integrity under pressure that make this a very satisfying read.

Highly recommended -- and no, you don't need to read the other Billy Boyle books before this one. But I'm betting most readers who race through the Solomons with Billy and Kaz will want to start collecting the entire series. James R. Benn, Soho Crime ... it's a partnership as good as they of Billy Boyle and Lt. Kazimierz. And as Billy observes: "War makes white ghosts of us all."

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